My First Patient

Tuesday, October 24, 2023

Second place winner in the Synapse Storytelling Contest poetry category.

You told me you wanted to kill yourself,
to drown in the ocean
below the rust-colored arches of Golden Gate.
You told me the voices were still there,
saying no one would remember you.

I felt your suffering,
like looking through a window so dark 
I could see my reflection in the pane of glass.

You were the first patient I met in medical school.
I didn’t know what to say to you -- 
we didn’t cover this in lecture.
But the pain in your eyes was palpable,
your gaze groundward, your shoulders slumped,
as if sorrow had arms and was pulling you to the earth.
So I said,
You are strong for still being here.
So I said,
You are powerful.
You smiled for the first time that day --
the only time that day.

In your smile I saw a light flicker through the darkness,
a lighthouse rising out of the boundless black ocean,
illuminating the unrelenting tide below.
The waves lapped at my feet,
my shoes submerged, my toes numb.

How can I hear your pain 
and not feel it as my own?
How can I hear your story 
and not imagine the cold, salty water filling my lungs,
dragging me into the enviable stillness below?

The fluorescent light of the hallway jolts me back to the exam room:
it’s time to see the next patient.
My shoes still wet, my toes still numb,
we enter the next room.

I drove past Golden Gate today,
a sailboat floated below the rust-colored arches.
I still wonder how you are sometimes,
I still remember you.